Far from being the sweet, romantic song the tune suggests, the song is about a man on the verge of murdering his family.
There are a number of similarities with Summer Days suggesting that the songs share the same narrator. Like that song Bye and Bye concerns the narrator’s unsuccessful relationship, and the theme of repeating the past. We again have his memories of different stages of the relationship – here beginning with his initial interest in the woman before going on to recount his disillusionment, jealousy and eventual madness. As time moves on, we see the narrator has become increasingly unhappy. His initial romantic intoxication, characterised by the exuberant energy of ‘paintin’ the town’ and freely ‘swingin’ my partner around’, gives way to a constrained ‘scufflin’’ and shufflin’’ and the pain implied by ‘walkin’ on briars’. Eventually movement all but ceases – he’s ‘rollin’ slow’, and his destination is death.
Something goes wrong in the relationship. The precise extent to which each person is responsible is unclear, but it transpires that the narrator is unfaithful and that, in his eyes, the woman is too.
Along the way it’s implied that he and the woman get married and have a child. The extra detail of the child, not present in Summer Days, makes the decision to kill all the more horrifying.
A number of things are significant about the title and its recurrence in the first and fourth lines of the song.
First, the expression is normally spelt ‘by and by’, and it’s used in connection with something expected to happen at some vague point in the future. The ‘e’ on the end of ‘bye’, as it’s spelt here, reminds us of ‘’bye’, the abbreviation of goodbye, and accordingly it’s pertinent in a dark way to the narrator’s intentions. He’s planning a goodbye to his wife and child, and perhaps his own goodbye to the world.
The phrase is additionally relevant in its normal sense, though. The song looks back on the past and forward to the future from the narrator’s standpoint in the present. The phrase’s occurrence at the beginning of the first and fourth lines shows the narrator not only remembering the past, but having gone back in memory to a time preceding the events he’s recalling – a time from which his earlier self can anticipate those things which (from the standpoint of the present) have already happened.
It might seem at first as if the narrator is presenting the memories in reverse order:
‘Bye and bye, I’m breathin’ a lover’s sigh’
‘Bye and bye, on you I’m casting my eye’
The reason is that one would expect the hopeless infatuation represented by the lover’s sigh to occur after the narrator’s first casting his eye on the woman. However, the majority of the song is presented in chronological order, and so one might expect the same to be true of these two lines. If so, that would tell us something about the narrator. It would suggest that the lover’s sigh is false. The sigh is perhaps no more than an indication of wishful thinking as the romantically inclined narrator imagines a situation which at best will exist at some undefined time – ‘by and by’. If so, this would make his position even more ludicrous than that of a medieval courtly lover who would at least have had a particular woman in mind. Such a lack of realism might help explain the failure of the subsequent relationship.
Just as he looks back beyond the past events he’s focusing on, the narrator also propels himself into the future, and then even further to a standpoint from which he can look back on that future:
‘… the future for me is already a thing of the past’.
One thing he means is that there’s no chance of his having the future he’d once envisaged with the woman. But the language he uses to say this seems to make him unduly pessimistic in having him commit himself to a pre-determined future. By confusing the future with the past, so that both are treated as settled, he denies himself any chance of future success.
Not only is it absurd that the narrator is capable of imagining a future where there isn’t one while treating the real future as non-existent – ‘a thing of the past’, but his outlook is inconsistent. This is because in the final verse he goes on to consider what he’s in fact going to do in the future. Planning the murder his family requires him to be treating the future as in his control.
The narrator becomes desperate. It’s a desperate optimism which causes him to say in verse four:
‘I’m tellin’ myself I found true happiness
That I’ve still got a dream that hasn’t been repossessed’.
This too might be inconsistent in that the optimism clashes with the pessimism which is about to drive him to seeing the future as ‘a thing of the past’.
That the optimism is desperate is shown by the lines being full of uncertainty. The phrase ‘I’m tellin’ myself’ suggests that at the time he has in mind he has no belief in what he’s saying. Why otherwise would he need to ‘tell himself’? Furthermore, saying ‘‘I found’ true happiness, rather than ‘I have found’, makes it clear that the narrator considers, even at the time he’s recalling, any happiness to have gone. And even though the ‘I’ve’ of ‘I’ve got a dream’ suggests he was still clinging on to hope, he’s implicitly admitting that what he had was nothing more than a dream.
Where The Wild Roses Grow
The narrator’s announcement that he’s going ‘where the wild roses grow’ is sinister. The expression appears in the Nick Cave song of that title, itself based on a traditional song. It concerns a narrator who murders his sweetheart.
The present case is worse. Not only does it seem that the narrator has married the woman, but that they have had a child. This is implied when the narrator seems to present his behaviour from the child’s point of view:
‘Papa gone mad, mamma, she’s feeling sad’
We have the child’s view that its father has ‘gone mad’, the use of ‘Papa’ and ‘mamma’ making it unlikely that the narrator’s is referring to his own parents.
This madness, it seems, gives rise to the narrator’s stated intention to ‘baptise you in fire’. Whereas in Summer Days it was unclear what the place was which the narrator intended to set on fire, from the present song it would seem it was the woman’s own place – and presumably with both her and the child in it. Whereas in Summer Days we couldn’t be certain that the narrator really intended to carry out his threat, here his madness suggests that he does. The intention seems even worse however, since along with the woman, the child too will be burnt to death. That that’s the case is reinforced by the use of the word ‘baptise’ in ‘baptise you in fire’ – baptism normally being a ceremony involving children.1
The narrator claims that his murderous action will amount to his establishing his rule through civil war. But since civil war involves a state turning on itself, it seems he recognises that his asserting his control will be at the expense of himself. He’ll have destroyed the family of which he himself is a part. His claim that ‘the future for me is already a thing of the past’ suggests that he intends all three of them to burn to death. But even if he doesn’t intend to die as well, and even if he gets away with the crime, he’ll nevertheless have ruined his own future.
Whether or not the narrator anticipates his own death, he perversely sees his act of murder as demonstrating how:
‘… loyal and true …’
he is. Why he should think this is unclear. He may have in mind the woman’s adulterousness and be contrasting it with what he takes to be his own loyalty to her. That he considers her to have been unfaithful can be divined from the final verse in which the narrator announces he’s taking measures to ensure she ‘can sin no more’. That her ‘sin’ is adultery is apparent in that, ironically given the narrator’s intention, the phrase is one used by Christ to an adulteress after he’d rescued her from a murderous mob (John 8.1-11).
If the narrator is implying he has been ‘loyal and true’, he’s being disingenuous. This is apparent for two reasons. First his choice of the expression ‘swingin’ my partner around’ hints at extra-marital sexual activity. And then, independently of that, there’s the relationship between the line in which this phrase appears:
‘I’m paintin’ the town – swinging my partner around’
and the last line of the same verse:
‘I’m paintin’ the town – making my last go-round’
One might have thought that the partner is the woman who becomes his wife. But since painting the town involves both the partner and his ‘last go-round’ – a last sexual liaison – it would seem that it would have to be someone else. He’s having what he intends to be a last fling before settling down.
Much of what else he says can be interpreted in the light of this. He’s anxious not to be discovered being unfaithful so is:
‘… watchin’ the roads’.
And fearing that someone might tell the woman about his disloyalty, he comforts himself with the thought:
‘ I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust’
He may even be uncertain about whether or not he should give up his current philandering lifestyle:
‘I’m not even acquainted with my own desires’
The wording implies an implicit contrast with Rosalind in As You Like It who does ‘have acquaintance with my own desires’. Rosalind is loyal.2
There’s a further reason for thinking the narrator to be disloyal. While the reference to a last go-round might suggest he recognises that his past lifestyle has come to an end, that this is so is both supported and contradicted by his subsequent assertion that:
‘… the future for me is already a thing of the past’.
On the one hand, it seems to be saying that the past is over and done with – not therefore to be repeated. On the other it seems to be saying that in unifying future and past his future now is a repetition of his past. In other words he’s gone back to being unfaithful.
Although the intended murder is terrible, the narrator is not to be condemned outright. First, we have reason to believe it’s planned at a time when the narrator isn’t in his right mind. He does it when, in the wording of the child, he’s ‘gone mad’.
In fact the narrator is presented as a realistic, rounded character with virtues to counteract his vices. He seems, for example, aware that his original outlook at the beginning of the relationship is unrealistic, the use of the derogatory phrase ‘sugar-coated rhyme’ implying a critical attitude towards his earlier self. He‘s come to realise he was being overly romantic and therefore unrealistic in his expectations.
In addition, despite not knowing what he wants once the relationship becomes rocky, he attempts to save it. If we take him at his word, he does everything he can – ‘all I know’ – to make a success of it. While in practice this doesn’t seem to amount to much, he at least tries to convince himself he’s ‘found true happiness’ – that the woman hasn’t ‘repossessed’ it.
And that he feels responsible for what’s happened to the relationship is apparent from the way he describes his mental state in verse one:
‘I’m sittin’ on my watch so I can be on time’
The phrase ‘sittin’ on my watch’, in addition to representing the narrator’s concern with timekeeping (in a somewhat bizarre way), comes across as an admission of carelessness in allowing something to happen which shouldn’t have. He was, as the phrase has it, asleep on his watch. What it was he allowed to happen we’re not told, but it may be he sees himself as having paid insufficient regard to the possibility of a rival.
This admission of fault itself gives rise to an attempt to be more careful in future. Although the line:
‘I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust’.
can be an expression of overconfidence, it might also be taken as a declaration that he has taken steps to curb that overconfidence. Either way being over trusting gives way to an apparently necessary suspicion:
‘I’m watchin’ the roads, I’m studying the dust’
He’s now more wary. On the present interpretation, which runs parallel to the one given above concerning his unfaithfulness, sitting on his watch has given way to watching the roads for a rival.
The narrator here is the same as the narrator of Summer Days and the song is similar in that it comprises his memories about an unsuccessful relationship. There’s a shadowy recurrence of the main theme of the earlier song, about whether the past is repeatable, in the ambivalence shown by the narrator regarding the future. He’s shown early on to focus on an imaginary, idealised future which he fails to make come about. When, inevitably, his hopes are dashed, instead of reacting positively he decides to put an end to the future itself – his, the woman’s and his child’s. In doing so he prevents any hope of past happiness, imagined or otherwise, being repeated.
In terms of plot, as with Summer Days the song is inconclusive in that, while the murders seem intended, we don’t get to find out whether they are carried out. What we do get is a deeper insight into the mind of the narrator – what it is about him which results in his terrible decision. There’s more evidence here of why the relationship broke down, the narrator’s disloyalty, deviousness and lack of commitment to the relationship all becoming apparent. While there’s no further evidence of, for example, the narrator’s extroversion, rudeness or reticence about his past, we’re able to see why he’s unable to cope. Just as he had earlier represented the future to himself in idealised form, we again find him unable to accept reality when he desperately tries to convince himself that that things aren’t as bad as they seem. He swings from absurd optimism to absurd pessimism. In the end his torment causes him to lose his mind – to give up the fight and recklessly impose cruel suffering.
Behind the horror of his decision, we can find a positive side to his character. Due to the song’s comprising the narrator’s memories of different stages of the relationship, we’re able to see how his outlook has developed. He becomes more wary and has learnt to be critical of his earlier idealistic feelings. And although he seems disloyal, the reference to his ‘last go-round’ shows at least that he intends to reform (albeit, like St Augustine, ‘not yet’). Furthermore, rightly or wrongly, he believes he’s doing what he can to save the relationship.
- According to Luke 3.16 ‘Christ will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ and so the narrator is perhaps attempting to justify his intention by seeing himself in some sense as Christ (as he does when he uses the expression ‘sin no more’). Here ‘fire’ seems to refer to Christ’s suffering. Christ is saying that he will baptise people in the sense that he’ll make up for their sins past and future by suffering on the cross. Dylan’s narrator likewise intends to do away with what he perceives as the woman’s adultery – by killing his family.
It may also be relevant that prior to the crucifixion Christ also said ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it was blazing already. There is a baptism I must still receive and how great is my distress till it is over’ (Luke 12.49-53). Here it is his executioners who are baptising him in the metaphorical sense that they’re causing him to suffer and so, indirectly, they’re doing away with sin. Again Dylan’s narrator would be putting an end to any chance of the woman or their children repeating her ‘sin’ by killing them.
- It would seem he’s also not true in another sense. Given his philandering it seems unlikely he’s speaking the truth when he says:
‘You were my first love and you will be my last’